Few comic operas of the 19th century have aged with
such pleasure as L’Elisir d’amore. Although it is supposed
to take place in a small Italian (originally Basque) village
in the late 18th century it is possible to adjust
to any period. This production from Barcelona has it firmly
established in what looks like the inter-war years and in the
square of a less rural place - even though the opening chorus
sings of harvest – but there is no sign of reaping implements.
Nemorino runs a little shop where he sells magazines and cheap
literature and that’s where Adina finds the story of Tristan
and Isolde (maybe in the Illustrated Classics series) of
which she relates the essence in her aria, the one that inspires
Nemorino to spend his last sixpence on Dulcamara’s fake elixir.
Dulcamara arrives by a side-car equipped motorbike driven by
a uniformed chap with a cap that is uncannily reminiscent of
Nazi headgear. But there are no other references of political
or ideological import so this is probably just a coincidence.
The stage picture throughout the performance is an open space
– a square with a lamppost in the middle. This lamppost is important
as the hub around which much of the action rotates. Behind the
square is a building with two storeys having staircases on both
sides. The production oozes with life and energy and one can
savour plenty of amusing details in the massed scenes, which
are numerous, as well as in the central confrontations. I have
to say that the more it progressed the more involved I became.
I ended up being totally enchanted by the whole production.
It was a long time since I became so enthralled by an opera
performance on DVD.
The director has played an all-important part in this success.
Generally speaking L’Elisir d’amore in a way plays itself
but Mario Gas has definitely chiselled out very specific and
tangible characters. It’s a pleasure to watch the many minute
details in gestures and movements, also in the crowd scenes
where the members of the chorus are not only anonymous citizens
but clearly identifiable individuals.
The soloists are also impressively responsive to the director’s
desiderata, down to Cristina Obregón’s lively Giannetta, who
here stands out as a central character, much more than can be
expected from what little she has to sing. Jean-Luc Chaignaud
does what he can to make Belcore something more than a stock
character. Vocally he has something of Renato Bruson’s timbre
but not the smoothness and elegance. On the other hand this
is not what one expects from a rather crude soldier like Belcore.
He certainly has the looks for him.
Dulcamara is no doubt one of the meatiest roles for a good buffo
and Bruno Praticň is certainly one of the most experienced and
idiomatic of today’s singing-actors in this particular genre.
His voice is not among the most ingratiating but we don’t expect
that from a Dulcamara. What he has in abundance is stage presence,
expressivity and the capacity to sing a beautiful mezzo forte
when the situation requires. He is great in his long entrance
solo and also in the scenes with Nemorino and Adina. When the
performance is over there is a reprise of his solo in the finale,
which he sings in the auditorium, handing out miniature bottles
with his elixir of love to love-thirsty members of the audience.
The main reason for acquiring this DVD is the two central characters,
Nemorino and Adina, and they are terrific. Maria Bayo has for
quite some time been one of my favourite sopranos. She is a
fascinating actor and vocally was on top form when this performance
was recorded five years ago. Her crystalline but warm voice
is truly enchanting and few singers inflect their phrases with
so much feeling. This is a singer who never strives for just
beautiful tone but first and foremost the appropriate nuances
the role requires. I can’t remember a more perfect Adina, bar
Ileana Cotrubas on the famous CBS recording from the late 1970s.
Likewise Rolando Villazon has nothing to fear from comparison
with almost any great tenor who ever took on this grateful role.
Not only is he the possessor of a voice that must rank among
the most beautiful ever, Domingo-like but leaner, and with an
ability and willingness to find all the nuances in the music.
He is also a superb actor and he makes a heartfelt portrait
of the simpleton Nemorino – not one to be laughed at but to
feel pity for in all his clumsiness. Villazon, who has made
so many memorable roles in a serious vein – not least Des Grieux
in Manon – here shows his talent for comedy in a most
uninhibited way. If I describe him as opera’s Mr Bean, I hope
readers realize that this is a compliment to both Rolando Villazon
and Rowan Atkinson. Vocally he surpasses even Domingo and Di
Stefano, up till now the two best competitors on complete recordings,
and Una furtiva lagrima is so masterly sung with infinite
care. Both my wife and I were absolutely breathless during the
aria and the audience in Barcelona seemed to share our admiration.
The applause and ovations lasted forever and after what felt
like an eternity Villazon, who struggled to remain in his role,
had to give in and reprise the aria, singing it as exquisitely
as before. Even though the rest of the performance had been
just ordinary it would have been worth the price just for the
sake of Una furtiva lagrima.
But as I hope I have made clear there are plenty of other reasons
to acquire it. The sound is great, the film team have done a
good job, without being particularly spectacular. After all
this is not a show-piece but a rural melodrama. They have chosen
to let us see it from a certain distance, obtrusive close-ups
being quite sparse. I have seen quite a number of performances
from Gran Teatre del Liceu and had high expectations concerning
the quality of chorus and orchestra. I wasn’t let down.
Whatever other versions you may have of this lovely opera the
present issue is worth adding to the collection, primarily for
Bayo and Villazon. Villazon’s Una furtiva lagrima is
magical. The whole performance is so charming, so entertaining
and so human.
see also review by Robert